After training camp officially came to a close over the weekend, Maple Leafs coaches and management had to sit down and make a slew of very tough choices in terms of which players would stick on the NHL roster and which ones would be assigned to develop their game in another league. And when GM Lou Lamoriello, head coach Mike Babcock and the rest of team brass finally arrived at those decisions in whittling down the roster to 26 players, they did so knowing some would be disappointed.
However, that disappointment is by the same token an encouraging development for Leafs fans. It means that there were more NHL-calibre players than there were available jobs. It means the organization now has a degree of depth that hadn't been there for some time. And it means that young players who already are growing their game are now being challenged to raise it to even greater heights, which can only help the Buds down the road.
"Without question, it's been a competitive camp," Lamoriello told Leafs TV Monday after the team practiced. "I think it's great when you have decisions. It's better to have decisions than no decisions."
"I think obviously we're in a situation that we've had a competitive camp," added Babcock. "There was good battles for jobs both on the back end and up front, and I mean we're a long way from sorting it all out, but in saying all that, it gives us a place to start."
The Leafs trimmed their roster by assigning 15 players - forwards Miro Aaltonen, Frederik Gauthier, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Tobias Lindberg, Mason Marchment, Trevor Moore, Nikita Soshnikov and Dmytro Timashov; defencemen Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Andrew Nielsen, Michael Paliotta and Rinat Valiev; and goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo - to the American League's Toronto Marlies. Toronto also placed six players - forwards Colin Greening, Kerby Rychel, Ben Smith and Chris Mueller; blueliner Vincent LoVerde; and goalie Garret Sparks - on waivers, and assigned winger Carl Grundstrom to Frolunda HC of the Swedish League.
That leaves the Leafs with 26 players - three more than the 23-man roster limit, which must be finalized and submitted to the league by 5 p.m. Tuesday - and although management can't do much to keep the reassigned players from feeling disappointed, they were given messages of encouragement in an effort to keep them positive about what's ahead.
"You're just honest with them," Lamoriello said when asked what the organization tells players who didn't make the cut. "Both (Soshnikov) and (Kapanen), they've played extremely well, they played well when they were here last year, and unfortunately there comes a business decision involved because they have the ability to go down because they don't need waivers. And when you have the depth that we have right now, you have to make those decisions.
"But they're knocking on the door. They'll be back in the NHL. And the most important message is, yes, be disappointed, but don't let up on the gas. You have to continue to force us to get you back."
The players still with the Leafs now turn their attention to the beginning of the regular season - which kicks off for Toronto with a showdown against the Jets in Winnipeg Wednesday - and they understand the physical and mental grind that's ahead. But after playing eight pre-season games (and winning five of them) they're thrilled for the process to begin.
"I think we're getting antsy, we want to get it going," said winger Connor Brown, who is entering his sophomore NHL season. "But we feel pretty comfortable. I thought we had a good finish to those last couple games, starting to play the way we want to play, and we've just got to continue to build off that."
Like the Leafs, the Jets are bringing back most of their players from the 2016-17 campaign, with the notable exception of goalie Steve Mason, who left Philadelphia as a free agent to sign with Winnipeg this past summer. But although they failed to make the post-season, the Jets finished with as many regular-season wins as Toronto (40) and have a number of high-impact individuals on their roster, including sophomore winger Patrik Laine and blueliner Jacob Trouba.
There's no guarantee the Leafs will be able to walk into the Jets' home and begin the year on a winning note, but as Babcock noted, the competitive balance in the now 31-team league means Toronto has to be prepared to fight with everything they've got throughout the season.
"We're going into a tough building in Winnipeg and it's going to be tough, but that's what you're going to say every night," Babcock said. "The parity in the league is unbelievable, and every night is going to be hard."